John’s Shanghai Soup Dumplings Are A Better Deal Than Joe’s
Well, readers, it was a random Thursday and for whatever reason I was really in the mood for some soup dumplings. I hadn’t had them for about six months at Shanghai Tide in Flushing, the last time I did a appetizer crawl on the International Express (aka 7 line). The first time I ever tasted soup dumplings was at Joe’s Shanghai, the most famous place for these Shanghainese treats with restaurants around the city. I was interested in trying something besides Joe’s, so I googled “soup dumplings midtown” or something of that nature. John’s Shanghai (46th btw 6+7th) appeared high on the list. And, the place had just appeared in the our Lunch Links as having some great “fried tiny buns” according to the blog Food In Mouth. I thought perhaps dumplings might be their thing.
If you’ve never tried soup dumplings, or Xiaolongbao, it’s a very interesting experience. The pork (or I’ve also seen crab and pork) filled dumpling is also filled with a flavorful “soup.” You place the dumpling in a soup spoon, cover it with a vinegar-ginger sauce, bite into it, let the soup run from the dumpling into your spoon, and finally slurp and gobble. How in the world do they get the soup into the dumpling? At first I thought they must inject it, but I found out that they wrap aspic (kind of like meat jello) in with the pork and it melts during the steaming process. They’re always moist because of the soup and ground meat, and the sauce really gives them the extra yum factor. I couldn’t wait to get some in my belly. So, without further ado, I bravely marched toward Times Square; John’s is located in that general area.
Thanks to the bumbling tourists, the closer I get to Times Square, the higher my blood pressure rose from sheer annoyance and the more apprehensive I become about the restaurants. Is the target audience 100% tourists, 100% locals, or a good mix of both? John’s Shanghai seemed to lean toward the tourist side, partly because of the blatant ripoff of Joe’s Shanghai name, and partly because of the ridiculous prices for entrees. It’s off-putting for a New Yorker to look at the menu displayed in the front and see prices approaching $16 for a regular meat entree. But note that although it’s nothing close to the deals or authentic experiences at a place like
Ying Du Ming Du, they do have lunch specials starting at $7.50 that come with soup and rice. They also serve a each table a bowl of crunchy noodles with sweet and sour sauce, just in case you don’t have enough of those leftover from Chinese takeout getting stale in your cabinet at home.
But how do the soup dumplings measure up? Pricewise, John’s are better: the soup dumplings on Joe’s menu are $7.25, and you get 6. The soup dumplings — called “pork steamed juice bun” at John’s — are $7.95, and you get 8. And John’s dumplings are pretty big and very filling! I’ve seen much smaller dumplings elsewhere.
Taste-wise, they were de-lish, but I honestly couldn’t tell much of a difference in flavor between John’s and others I’ve tasted. What I did notice is that this is THE first time I’ve been able to eat these things without making a sloppy mess all over my plate. (I admit there was some spillage but not as much as usual.) Perhaps it’s that I’m just starting to get the hang of eating them, but I also think the thickness of the dumpling dough had something to do with it. I’ve had some experiences where the wall of the dumpling was so thin that I couldn’t touch it without it breaking and spilling the “soup” all over the place. At John’s, the dumplings hold up.
For any of you who decide to go, I should warn you that you should probably save this place for a day you’re not in a big hurry. You can certainly call in and order takeaway or delivery, but if you’re getting the soup dumplings, I would recommend sitting down because they are messy and they’re best right out of the bamboo steamer. Not that I had a terribly long wait, but between the four-block walk, the wait, the eating, and the walk back, it took nearly a full hour. As my fortune said, “Patience is one of the hardest virtues to master.” Is John’s worth pulling this virtue out of your bag of tricks? For the soup dumplings, in my opinion, yes.
Do you know of a restaurant in Midtown that serves up good soup dumplings for a better price? If you do, let’s hear about it.
John’s Shanghai, 144 W 46th Street, 212-391-0888